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Palestine and the UAE’s disinformation campaign

May 14, 2021 at 1:39 pm

Israeli forces intervene in Palestinians with stun grenade during a demonstration at Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood after Israeli government’s plan to force some Palestinian families out of their homes in East Jerusalem on May 05, 2021 [Mostafa Alkharouf – Anadolu Agency]

Over the past week, Jerusalem and occupied Palestine have once again seen popular collective action, an almost spontaneous reaction to the repeated injustices and oppression amid the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. Yet, within the midst of all the violence and chaos, a rather subtle, yet devious, narrative arises from Israel and its ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

It is no hidden fact that the vast Israeli PR network spins the reality on the ground in Palestine to one depicting a Jihadi-inspired riot posing an existential threat to the state. However, what seemingly appears unfitting is the support and response emitting from the Emirati regime and its civilian patrons. Despite a rather “invisible hand” and quietist approach within the Palestinian question, the UAE’s proactive disinformation network and its blind support of Israel’s selective storytelling tells a lot about its extended strategy in Palestine.

“Terrorists”, “Rioters”, “ungrateful” and “stupid”. This is the language used by UAE influencers tweeting and speaking with a license from the UAE government to assess and describe the events in Jerusalem, posing curiously close to that employed for decades by Israel’s right-wing peace rejectionists and official PR machines. The narratives utilised within Israeli media circles centre on four intersecting pillars: the inability to explain the conflict because of its complexity, the argument of self-defence against “fanatic Jihadi Hamas fighters”, the labelling of opposition and critique as “anti-Semitic” and the radicalisation of Palestinian protests. These narratives, despite their curation for Western consumption, have been echoed by UAE disinformation operations, particularly on platforms like Twitter, with the aim of curating an image of a reckless, violent and dangerous Palestinian. These work towards normalising and opening a platform for public opinion to accept the recent ties with the “rational” Israeli who takes peace more seriously.

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Many within the upper echelons of Abu-Dhabi’s political and religious streams have forged clear alliances between Israeli narratives dedicated to anti-Palestinian bigotry and anti-Hamas sentiments, reframing factors to serve Israel’s cause at the expense of Palestinians. Dr Waseem Yousef, for example, a preacher known for his close ties with the de facto ruler of the Emirates, Mohammed Bin Zayed, accuses Hamas of “making Gaza a cemetery for innocents and children.” He alludes to the irony of Hamas “firing rockets” yet “crying and shouting for Arabs” when Israeli retaliation comes back.

This deductive reasoning and the reframing of events establish the terror in Gaza as a direct result of “supporting Hamas” and the “disease of the Muslim brotherhood”, taking Israeli violence right out of the picture. On the same ground is another Emirati influencer, Hassan Sajwani, cynically tweeting: “Why can’t Palestinian protestors just vacate #AlAqsaMosque and simply go home.” Emirati influencer Hamad Alhosani similarly chose to reiterate the narratives set by @IsraelArabic’s video, claiming protestors were, in fact, proxies for Hamas, stating: “May God Protect the Temple Mount from the tempering of terrorism.”

These instances cannot be reduced to a collection of random Emiratis expressing their own respective political opinions; the outpouring of political messages in a country where political activism is criminalised and can only be sanctioned by the state. It is part of the disinformation campaign driven by the UAE targeting Middle East and North African countries to create the impression of popular discontentment with any forms of resistance, democracy and power to the people. Within this comes tactics of hashtag laundering to further specific geopolitical agenda. The recent Israeli-instigated violence in Jerusalem thus provided a platform through which Abu Dhabi could once again ideologically use language to help present Palestinians as initiators of violence, mirroring the patterns within Western media outlets to obscure the Israeli origins of violence while implying a false parity of power within the Palestinian resistance. With Israeli vehemence framed as a “response”, one immediately receives an impression that if Palestinians had refrained from resisting, they would not have been attacked. One can thus clearly see the colonial undertones in this carefully crafted narrative.

The Israeli assault on Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan has been capitulated in a narrative led by UAE-sanctioned personas to defeat the will of the people, which they conflate as the will of a larger exogenous power. This discourse, as defined by French philosopher Michel Foucault, is more than a way of thinking and producing meaning. It is a way for the Gulf state and Israel to maintain authority while silencing and disempowering Palestinian voices to empower their own. When looking at power, we must understand that we cannot adequately understand the influence of the UAE on Palestinian affairs and that of the greater region if we see it only in the form of structural hard power. Within the mechanics of Emirati power and the regulation of the Arab subject comes the utilisation of language to formulate discourses fitting for its political strategy. The way the Palestinian conflict is framed reflects this very tactic. Coalescing average Palestinian resistance against settler-colonialism to the larger actions of Hamas perpetuates a narrative and image that casts any forms of resistance against Israeli injustices as detrimental to peace and international politics.

As such, one of the UAE’s most effective counter-revolutionary strategies comes to light – the radicalisation of all opposition and the targeting of political Islam. In this specific moment, Palestinian protestors have been villainised, turning their resistance from a fight to reclaim land, to one between Jihadi terrorists and a mitigating Israeli state. Since the Arab Spring, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia established themselves as violent rejectors of democratic uprisings in the Middle East.

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The UAE has often been viewed as the leader of this counter-revolutionary front, advocating for a “stable” Middle East through upholding autocratic dictatorships that would maintain a status quo in their favour. As part of this world view, any forms of electoral Islamism and political liberalism are two sides of the same coin; they both represent radical positive change that endangers the very legitimacy of these regimes. The tactics utilised in the discourse against Palestinian resistance is thus part of this counter-revolutionary battle launched by the UAE – one they cannot afford to lose. The cognisable anti-revolutionary discourse is manifested in tactics of playing up the threat of peaceful protests to create an atmosphere where the mere existence of Palestinian resistance becomes unthinkable from a Gulf and Western policy standpoint.

In this offensive to win Western hearts and minds against the blurriness of whatever Islamism constitutes, a façade arises. The narratives of posing Palestinian resistance as part of the Islamist package hides domestic goals of legitimising repression, justifying military interventions and making journalists and activists disappear. The dichotomy of authoritarian stability versus Islamist anarchy, which in this case is painted as the stability of an internationally-recognised Israeli state and the unpredictable “Palestinian violence”, only furthers Western biases of the region and its conflicts. The violent efforts in erasing the Palestinian cause from the minds of the Arab public and the enormous effort into turning Palestinians into the enemy show that they want to abandon the conflict with Israel and cancel Palestinians altogether, hoping that internal dissent is crushed simultaneously.

Like Abu Dhabi, Israel established agenda around the securitisation of political Islam and has had sceptical stances towards the prospects of the Arab Spring in bringing about democracy and stability in the region. These ideological synergies between the two regimes create an increasingly false narrative aiming to justify the suppression of Arab civil society. However, while on the government level, most Arab and Gulf regimes have been behaving with Israel according to their separate raison d’état, the popular level of public opinion generates grievances and bitterness against Arab policy towards Palestine. In the absence of democracy and open platforms in the Gulf, Palestinian solidarity is confined to being a latent emotional force that still has a great capacity to disrupt the Arab system of states. With the current mobilisation of Palestinian resistance having a real opportunity to transform widespread anger into a practical liberal movement, the status quo upheld by powers like the UAE is at stake.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.